Former South star first-base coach for Durham Bulls

In the Durham Bulls dugout, Quinton McCracken stretches his legs, one at a time, before walking onto the field toward first base. A near-capacity crowd of 9,445 fans is seated in the 10,000-seat stadium on this 90-degree Thursday evening in July. As the Bulls bat in the bottom of the first inning, fans are eager to cheer the first-place Bulls to victory against the Norfolk Tides.

McCracken is the Bulls’ first-base coach, and there is no other place he’d rather be than in Durham as a Triple-A coach — with the possible exception of St. Petersburg, Florida, assisting the Bulls’ Major League Baseball affiliate, the Tampa Bay Rays, a team McCracken played for 21 years ago in its inaugural season.

For now, McCracken is focused on this game — if it can be played. With dark clouds in the distance, some fans use their iPhones to check weather radar. Indications are there will be no rain in the early innings. That’s good news for everyone in this unique stadium in downtown Durham.

The mascot bull preens from the billboard atop the blue wall in left field. Beyond the center field wall, green turf and shrubbery seem to shimmer. A high-rise building under construction looms beyond the right field fence. For McCracken, he feels as much at home here as he did at South Brunswick High

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School, where he first gained nationwide notice as a baseball player.

Back on the field in Durham

Four hours before the game between the Bulls and the Tide, McCracken talked about his initial year as first base coach with the Triple-A Durham Bulls. He exuberantly said, “Great.”

He’s a first-base coach, but he has many other duties.

“In the minor leagues, you chip in — in everything,” he said.

McCracken enjoys working in Durham and near his college alma mater.

“(Duke) gave me the opportunity as a snotty-nosed 18-year-old dual- sport guy to play football and baseball at such a great academic institution,” he said. “It was a good time to be Blue Devil. As I tell everyone, from 1988-92, that was the foundation of when Duke basketball became Duke basketball. I was a classmate of Christian Laettner and that crew. To see them in four Final Fours and winning two national titles back to back in ’91 and ’92 — I was here for that. I take pride in being a resident in Durham and a member of the Duke athletic program in the formative years.”

South Brunswick

The baseball and football programs at Duke sought McCracken because of his stellar athletic career at South Brunswick. McCracken said he has “great, fond” memories of his time as a Cougar.

“The years I was at South, from ’84 to ’88, we had numerous student-athletes go on to earn Division I, Division II, Division III scholarships in all sports,” he said. “And that was led by bringing in better educators, teachers that really were committed to not only the academics at the institution but enhancing the athletic program.”

McCracken said the success of the 1988 state championship baseball team began after a season-ending playoff loss in 1987.

“We used that as fuel for the fire in our senior year,” he said.

As youngsters, members of the Cougar team had competed with and against each other.

“Once that talent joined at the high school level, we grew up together and we developed together,” McCracken said. “And we developed a strong bond. The team chemistry for that group was unheard of.”

Devil Rays’ first batter

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays played their first game on March 31, 1998, against the Detroit Tigers at Tropicana Field before a crowd of 45,369. McCracken — listed in the media guide as 5-foot-7, 173 pounds — was the Rays’ first batter for the new franchise, and he faced Justin Thompson of Detroit.

“I remember the crowd going wild,” McCracken said. “The clicking of the cameras was endless. It was a momentous event for me and my family.”

What happened during the at-bat is a blur to McCracken, who said he might have grounded out. The box score indicates he finished with two hits and one RBI in the Rays’ 11-6 loss.

McCracken said he had “numerous highlights” from his Rays’ career, but he talked about something that happened to him in his second year with the Rays: a knee injury.

“At the time, I thought it was going to be career ending,” he said. “You have a speed guy who blows out his ACL...

“Thanks to the skills of noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. Andrews, who put my knee together, he game me a second lease on a playing career that I was able to play another five years pretty much on a busted up knee.

“A speed guy without speed, I kind of had to reinvent myself. Through he grace of God, good trainers, and a little determination and good fortune, I was able to play another five, six years in the league on a busted up knee.”

The experience was beneficial.

“You learn a lot more from defeats and setbacks than you do through victories,” McCracken said.

Facing Roger Clemens, admiring

Rickey Henderson

The toughest pitcher McCracken faced?

“The one time in the box when I felt overmatched would have to be 1998, and we’re playing Toronto and Roger Clemens was on the mound,” McCracken said. “It was the first time I really heard the crisp crackle of seams of a thrown baseball from a pitcher coming across the plate. He was on. And it was the night he recorded his 3,000th K.”

As a youngster, McCracken, as aspiring outfielder, watched Braves baseball whenever he could.

“The Brett Butlers, the Dale Murphys, those guys were guys that I grew up watching. But as far as guys you wanted to emulate, everyone loved to watch Rickey Henderson. And to be fortunate to play on the same field (against) Rickey — he played forever and he played at a high level forever — was one of those where you had to pinch yourself a little bit. That speed- power combination — what a talent. An exciting player. A Hall of Famer.”

Baseball administrator

“After the playing career was over with, I knew I wanted to stay in the game in some capacity,” McCracken said.

His first administrative role was with the Diamondbacks in 2010, one of his former teams, where he was given the opportunity “to take a look behind the curtains as an assistant farm director,” McCracken said.

Two years later he was offered a job with the Houston Astros and was with the team when it won the World Series in 2017. He still is a resident of Houston.

“I was there and helped be a part of building the franchise from the ground up,” McCracken said. “It was a great learning experience. ... I am very fond of the village of people that took part and helped in turning that franchise around.”

McCracken saw how the Astros used old-time methods and up-to-the- minute analytics.

“With the technical advantages that we have as far as the cybermetrics and utilizing advanced information, and balancing that out with traditional measures — the organizations that do that the best usually are the ones that are building a sustainable winner,” McCracken said. “They’re competing for a championship year in and year out. And that’s what we were able to do in Houston.”

Waiting their turn

Rain never disrupts this game between the Bulls and the Tide, and the Bulls go on to win 6-4 in a snappy 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Fans are accustomed to seeing the Bulls win this season: after this victory, they are 54-37. The Bulls have talented players. Three Bulls players were selected to play in the Minor League All-Star game. After having shown that they are among the best players in Triple-A, the question is how much longer do they have to wait before they get a chance to play Major League Baseball?

“They just have to persevere,” McCracken said. “These guys know that if they’re excelling and are on the top of their game at the Triple-A level, they’re only a phone call away from the big leagues. Be patient, continue to not lose faith and keep your eye on the prize, which is to get to the big leagues.”

Michael Brosseau is such an example. He was the Bulls’ third baseman for 68 games this season, making 292 plate appearances. Now he is playing for the Rays.

Selflessness

McCracken prides himself on being a selfless player and remains grateful to like-minded Colorado Rockies players who helped him in his baseball career.

“I was fortunate to come up through the Rockies system, where I had not only great players but great people to help mentor me and show me how to be a professional,” McCracken said. “The Ellis Burkes. The Dante Bichettes. ‘Big Cat’ Galarraga. The Eric Youngs of the world. They showed me how to be a professional, how to carry myself and how to play the game of baseball and take your skills to another level; that you were not only getting the best out of your individual skills but how to play selfless baseball. That’s why we had wining teams in Colorado.

“We had numerous years where those guys were 20-20, 30-30, hitting home runs and stealing bases — yet, still getting down a sacrifice bunt whenever they needed to, to help their team win. I was always thankful to those guys for all they did for me as a young player coming up through the Rockies system and to play my first few years in the big leagues with them. I will be forever indebted and grateful to those guys. Those are guys I still keep in contact with today.

“And that’s one thing I try to preach to these younger players now that I’m on the coaching side of it. On the field and in the front office, this game of baseball revolves around personal relationships. That’s the essence of it. Sooner or later you’re going to have to untie the cleats and put the cleats on the shelf, and life goes on. I think it’s the relationships you create during those times you’re playing that are the things you are going to walk away with. Stats are stats, and they’re going to be there. But it’s going to be those personal relationships that you’re going to walk away from this game with.”

Visit us online at www.stateportpilot.com to watch a video of Michael Paul’s interview with Quinton McCracken as he talks about his role with the Durham Bulls.